As activists and international leaders spoke out around the world on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, white-gloved police officers were defending the site of the crackdown with umbrellas, blocking the view of prying news cameras lest they capture some brave soul honouring the fallen.
When trying to be serious, Chinese authorities can look awfully absurd.
But as ever, it was a mistake on this day to test Beijing’s resolve. At least one man found himself being frog-marched to a paddy wagon after appearing in the square clad entirely in white, the colour many dissidents have chosen to symbolize their solidarity with the ill-fated pro-democracy demonstrators of 1989. The man claimed it was all a ‘misunderstanding,’ and pleaded with the officers to hear him out. Yet a Toronto Star reporter who witnessed the arrest noted that the man’s outfit included a giant white cowboy hat—a rare enough sight in Beijing to suggest the man was hoping for YouTube exposure.
It was one a few minor incidents on a day Communist leaders no doubt consider a success, having warded off public commemorations that might have given lie to the official government line that most Chinese people are happy under one-party rule. The biggest gatherings took place outside the mainland, most notably a 150,000-strong candle-lit vigil in Hong Kong, where greater tolerance of expression has allowed democracy supporters to gather in a park several times on the anniversary after China’s 1997 takeover of the former British colony.
Demonstrators at that event raised a statue of the goddess of Liberty—just as their Tiananmen forebears did in 1989—while calling on Beijing to come clean about its actions that spring. “I know China is improving, but I hope that they will admit that they fired guns and did wrong,” Kong Choi-fung, a 44-year-old church worker, told Reuters. For years, the government has denied doing anything more than quelling a rump of counter-revolutionaries, while keeping the final death toll under wraps; some counts peg it as high as 7,000.
The anniversary also brought forth some of the original Tiananmen student leaders. Xiong Yan, who once counted on a list of Beijing’s 21 “most-wanted” organizers of the demonstrations, and who now lives in exile in the U.S., appeared at the Hong Kong vigil after unexpectedly getting a visa. Another most-wanted leader, Wu’er Kaixi, tried on Wednesday to “turn himself in” to Chinese authorities in Macao, but was detained and deported to Taiwan. “My turning myself in should not be interpreted as my admission that my behavior 20 years ago is illegal and wrong,” Wu’er said in a statement released before his arrival. “I want to reassert here the Chinese government bears complete and undeniable moral, political and legal responsibility for the tragedy that happened in China in 1989.”
Only demands from world leaders for truth about the crackdown seemed to strain Beijing’s patience. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, called for a death count from 1989, along with the release of those imprisoned in connection with the protests. China quickly fired back with a statement accusing Clinton of “crudely meddling” in its affairs. “We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told a press conference. “We urge the United States to forsake its prejudices, correct its erroneous ways and avoid obstructing and damaging China-US relations.”
In Ottawa, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon released a statement echoing Clinton’s call for an accounting of those killed, detained or missing. He also encouraged Canadians to “reaffirm Canada’s fundamental values of freedom including freedom of the press—democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd noted that the 1989 protestors demands for political freedom and less corruption remain unfulfilled.
Still, most leaders couched their criticism in homage to the country’s spectacular economic growth, suggesting Beijing’s crimes against truth aren’t enough to make any Western country to compromise its trading relationship with the budding superpower (Rudd actually committed in his statement to broader engagement). China’s day of reckoning on Tiananmen may yet come, of course. But for now, umbrellas are all it takes to keep history under wraps.